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5 in 5” is a yearly event where IBM, through its global research lab, presents 5 innovations that will change the societal and business landscapes in the next five years. This year’s event was held at the Think 2018 in Las Vegas. One of the outstanding innovations was the ultra-minute cryptographic anchors.Their purpose? To ensure that the quality and content of products are tracked right from the manufacturing point to the final consumer – by linking these anchors with a blockchain database.

Why such an innovation from IBM

The tech giant is always on the lookout for problems affecting society and business, that need tech-oriented solutions – and this time, it concerns product counterfeiting. According to IBM, the global economy suffers a financial loss of $600 billion yearly. Additionally, more than 70 percent of critical drugs in most countries are counterfeit. The problems are many. Issues of trust, cumbersome supply chain processes, improper manufacturing processes, non-certified manufacturing centers, and a host of others are the cause of these financial and livelihood issues that stem from fake products consumed on a daily basis.

Whiles the blockchain has done its part by introducing a trustless system, helping supply chains to be more proactive in tackling counterfeits and ensuring a smooth and seamless transition of products from the manufacturer to the final consumer, it seems the decentralized technology is not enough to solve all the issues bedeviling products. In IBM’s own words “Blockchain technology is poised as the future of digital transactions, infusing trust, efficiency, and transparency into supply chains. But blockchains alone cannot ensure the authenticity of physical goods”.

Cryptographic anchors: what can they do together with the blockchain?

Cryptographic anchors, capable of monitoring, analyzing, and communicating on data are being developed by IBM. According to the company, these are the smallest computers in the world and will be smaller than a grain of salt and packed with thousands if not millions of transistors to help deliver its core mandate.

To ensure that products are tracked from their point of manufacture to the consumer, these cryptographic anchors would be used together with a distributed ledger technology, leveraging the blockchain to ensure the authenticity of products. “These technologies pave the way for new solutions that tackle food safety, the authenticity of manufactured components, genetically modified products, identification of counterfeit objects and provenance of luxury goods”, said Arvind Krishna, head of research, IBM.

These anchors are geared towards preventing product fraud in the mixed-up global supply chain. They will also authenticate the origin of a product, verify the content that a product is made of, and ensure that the final consumer is able to verify the right content and source of the product. According to IBM, “crypto-anchors can be embedded into an edible shade of magnetic ink, which can be used to dye a malaria pill. The code could become active and visible from a drop of water letting a consumer know it is authentic and safe to consume”.

IBM’s Cryptographic Anchors in 18 months

The first models of these anchors could be available for businesses in the coming 18 months. They will come in the form of a minute or optical codes and would act as tamper-proof digital fingerprints or signatures for products and linked to the blockchain to ensure complete product authentication. The company is pushing research into new technologies and particularly driving blockchains to new heights and expects to see non-volatile memory, design, cryptography, and advanced microfluidics to be not just lab-based products, but working ecosystems that will shape our future in the next five years.

You probably will not need a telescope to see these cryptographic anchors, but they are very small in nature and pack thousands of transistors that are barely noticeable by the human eye.


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